January – February 2021
67 SKETCHES ON THE THEME OF SUPERHEROES
The theme arose with research on superheroes last year for my short story THE PURPLE POSSUM. Marvel and DC comics were my main sources. The multitude of platforms derived from them reminded me of figures for the LOVED ONES series and I anticipated a similar pictorial treatment, blending toy, animation, comic and costume. My interest in superheroes dates back to the seventies at least, but in devising a story I considered their mythic roles more closely. Unlike the figures of sentimental consolation in LOVED ONES, superheroes reflect a deep-seated need for a messianic figure, an avenging angel or divine leader. Their appeal, as with the dolls of LOVED ONES, is not confined to the very young. Superheroes function more or less as vigilantes, self-appointed champions of justice, somehow above or apart from the law and state, drawing upon higher or other-worldly powers. Significantly, stories are usually based in the United States where vigilantes are a very real and disturbing feature of society. I titled the series VIGILANTES because of this implicit social role but their narrative development often entails nemeses and equally supernatural threats. Stories acquire convoluted histories and recurrent villains. I have really only concentrated on the role of covert crime fighting and dramatic public rescue, reflecting acute anxiety over social stability and personal identity.
More notes at the bottom of the page.
NB -I have reverted to sub-pages for this series, for more than four variations on a composition, these offered in a link following the title.
VIG-04A [6 VARIATIONS]
VIG-08A [5 VARIATIONS]
VIG-29A [5 VARIATIONS]
I quickly realised it would not be enough to treat the series as just an extension of LOVED ONES, now with suitable exterior settings. Figures deal in opposing attitudes, call for different compositions. VIGILANTES could not simply accent the bathos of a state of mind, in an appropriately interior or internal setting. Figures needed to participate in the outside world; soon needed to be further back in the picture, rather than framing it from the foreground. Nor was I content with an obvious crime scene or villains. Part of the appeal of superheroes – and vigilantes – is to see the world in very stark terms, good versus bad, action versus passivity. To highlight this aspect I found more ambiguous or confused situations illuminating. What is disaster, anomaly or crime is accordingly uncertain in my pictures and all the more confronting for zealous vigilantes. Scenes of active combat or rescue largely proved beyond me unfortunately; were too comic or clichéd. For the most part my vigilantes direct their attention outwards, to the viewer and signal resolute presence in the face of chaos.
The emphasis on powerful physiques is usually regarded as an erotic undercurrent to the genre, and while undeniable, bodily prominence to superheroes also seemed a way of giving the role greater conviction or integrity. They are vigilantes through and through – to their fingertips – not merely by choice or frame of mind. An idealised anatomy has a respectable pedigree in art of course and the figures of someone like Stan Lee (Spiderman) recalled for me the equally righteous and mysterious world of William Blake (not entirely seriously) replete with entwined and ingenious text. Text however, was one option too many for this series. Blake’s highly schematic compositions did suggest a less literal approach to space though. Vigilante and situation may share a more metaphoric relation. A number of pictures pursue this option; some resort to quotation of a Blakean figure (VIG-43, 44, 45).
The danger with such a potent theme is really the urge to iconography, a rush to content. I was uneasy with the frank allusion to Blake for this reason. It is a little too cute. The aim, as always, is to skew prompt or easy recognition, to make style more opaque and problematic. On the one hand, one is attracted to such ripe subjects, on the other, detouring around them requires a delicate balance. Finally, there is the modest but unexpected bonus of revisiting old themes under a new course and discovering how much more effective my digital means have become. I won’t name previous series that overlap in territory, hopefully they are easily identified.